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A voter's guide to the seven-person race for Wisconsin state superintendent

A voter's guide to the seven-person race for Wisconsin state superintendent

2020 Election Day 110320 26-11032020144034 (copy)

The spring primary is Feb. 16, with the general election April 6.

There's a lot of jargon and information to navigate in any seven-person election, and it can get even more challenging when the subject is education, a world filled with acronyms and data.

With a week left until the Feb. 16 primary election, here is a plain-language — as much as we could — look at where the seven candidates for state superintendent of public instruction stand on a few subjects, based on a review of Q&As and forums held to date.

For more detail on the candidates’ positions, see the bottom of this story for links to those forums and Q&As.

The field will narrow to two after next Tuesday, with voters choosing the state’s next top education official April 6.

School choice

One of the most polarizing topics in education debates around Wisconsin, “school choice” refers to the charter and private school options available to families instead of public school.

Much of the debate is how much — if at all — the state should help pay for students to attend these schools through voucher programs. Recently, the increase in “independent charter schools” that can be authorized by groups other than local school boards has added another layer.

The state superintendent can’t unilaterally change these programs, as they were created through legislation.

Sheila Briggs: Opposes expansion of vouchers; supports increased accountability for schools that have voucher students; opposes independent charter schools unless authorized by the local elected school board

Joe Fenrick: Opposes taking money out of public school system for vouchers; believes independent charters lack accountability, transparency and local control

Troy Gunderson: Opposes publicly funded vouchers for private schools; opposes charter schools not connected with local public school district

Shandowlyon Hendricks-Williams: Supports vouchers and independent charter schools, creating same accountability standards for all schools

Deborah Kerr: Supports a single system of accountability for all schools

Steve Krull: Opposes state paying for private education; says charters need oversight from elected officials

Jill Underly: Opposes private school vouchers; opposes expanding independent charter schools program; supports moving existing charter schools to local school board oversight

How to close the achievement gap

Wisconsin is infamous for its longstanding racial achievement and opportunity gaps, among the worst in the United States. The former is measured by test scores and educational outcomes, the latter focuses on the lack of opportunities for advancement or recognition of existing skills for Black and brown students compared to their white peers.

Briggs: Modify assessment system, teach skills like reading differently, diversify teacher pipeline

Fenrick: Closing the gap needs to begin early with wraparound services to children, make sure they are prepared for kindergarten

Gunderson: More culturally sensitive approach to teaching, improving relationships with families and communities; look at states with better results and understand their work

Hendricks-Williams: Give children access to full-day 3- and 4-year-old kindergarten; collaborate with state Department of Children and Families; diversify teaching force

Kerr: Focus on science of reading, math and high-quality instruction; work with other states that have made significant literacy improvements

Krull: Personalize and individualize learning; take methods used at current school (he is principal at Garland Elementary School in Milwaukee) and extrapolate statewide

Underly: Create cabinet-level position focused on equity and closing gap; invest in early childhood education; diversify teaching workforce; don’t penalize struggling schools; actively undo racist structures in the system

Education funding

Among the key roles for the state superintendent is to propose the biennial budget for education, which includes the largest area of expenditure in the entire state budget: K-12 school aid. Whoever is elected will enter office in the middle of budget negotiations with a Republican legislative branch and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

Current State Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor proposed an ambitious budget, but it remains to be seen what language Evers will carry over into his own budget proposal and how receptive the Republican-controlled Legislature will be to those measures. Here’s what the candidates have said they would focus on for school funding.

Briggs: Current system creates inequality, so supports a complete overhaul of funding system while holding districts that benefit under current system harmless during transition; fully fund special education reimbursement

Fenrick: Fully fund special education reimbursement, freeing up existing resources for other duties; schools need more funding

Gunderson: Would advocate for more funding for public schools by focusing on the collective benefits to a good education

Hendricks-Williams: Per-pupil aid, property tax systems both create problems; raise school revenue limits and state funding for public schools

Kerr: Look for creative ways to adjust funding formula without creating winners and losers; per-pupil enrollment aids should be adjusted given COVID-19 enrollment drop

Krull: Broken school funding system; move away from reliance on local property taxes

Underly: Advocate for Blue Ribbon Commission recommendations; target resources to high-poverty schools; look at how other states target staffing for bilingual students and special education


With so much agreement on many of the issues at hand, each candidate’s experience could be one of the more significant factors for voters to consider in their choice.

Briggs: Assistant state superintendent in the Department of Public Instruction since February 2011; prior to joining DPI, worked in the Madison Metropolitan School District for nearly 15 years, as an elementary school teacher, principal, lead principal and director of state and federal programs

Fenrick: Fond du Lac High School science teacher who also is serving his third term as a Fond du Lac County supervisor, where he chairs the board’s Social Services and Human Services committees; also works as a geology lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh

Gunderson: Adjunct professor at Viterbo University in La Crosse following a 35-year career in public education; spent seven years as a classroom high school teacher, 16 years as a high school principal and 12 years as a school district superintendent

Hendricks-Williams: More than 25 years of experience in a variety of education roles, including at DPI, as an administrator and special education teacher in Milwaukee Public Schools; director in the Milwaukee office of Gov. Tony Evers until November 2020

Kerr: Superintendent of Brown Deer Schools for 13 years until leaving in June 2020; worked in a variety of educational sectors; a former president of the national School Superintendents Association and Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators

Krull: Has worked for 12 years in Milwaukee Public Schools as a principal, assistant principal and teacher

Underly: Superintendent in the Pecatonica Area School District since 2015; former elementary school principal and high school teacher; worked at DPI for five years

For more information

Q&As: Madison Teachers Inc., League of Women Voters, Wisconsin Public Education Network, WisconsinEye

Forums: Wisconsin Public Education Network, Wisconsin PTA, Association for Equity in Funding

Candidate websites: Sheila Briggs, Joe Fenrick, Troy Gunderson, Shawndowlyon Hendricks-Williams, Deborah Kerr, Steve Krull, Jill Underly

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Scott Girard is the local k-12 education reporter at the Cap Times. A Madison native, he joined the paper in 2019 after working for six years for Unified Newspaper Group. Follow him on Twitter @sgirard9.

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